Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased today to speak in favour of the amendments of this bill.
While I was not a member of the committee, I followed the issue very closely. It had a great deal of interest in my riding, for several reasons. I would like to commend members on all sides of the House for a truly productive committee process.
I know my colleague from Winnipeg Centre mentioned some of the amendments that he would like to have seen take place. I would underscore that my understanding is that the amnesty was simply too complex to build into the bill and must be dealt with administratively on a case by case basis. I would also really encourage anyone who has a criminal record to apply for a pardon before undertaking international travel.
I am very pleased to speak of some of the other amendments that are found in Bill C-10. Members are undoubtedly aware that countries treat cannabis possession in different ways. Some countries tolerate certain forms of possession and consumption, certain countries apply administrative sanctions or fines and others have penal solutions to the issue.
Despite the different legal approaches toward cannabis, there is a common trend and we certainly can see this particularly in European countries. There is the development of alternative measures to criminal possession for the cases of use and possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. There is regime that can involve fines, cautions, prohibition, exemption from punishment and counselling, and we see these among the European judicial systems.
In Australia some states and territories have also adopted cannabis decriminalization measures. Some of these measures are similar to the ones being contemplated in Bill C-10, which is before the House. I would like to take just a few moments to describe the situation in South Australia, the first Australian jurisdiction to adopt cannabis decriminalization measures, and I think we can learn from this example.
Reform of the cannabis laws in South Australia came with the bill entitled, the controlled substances act amendment of 1986. This amendment proposed a number of changes to the controlled substances act of 1984, including the insertion of provisions dealing with the expiation of simple cannabis offences. This represented an adoption of a new scheme for expiation for simple cannabis offences, such as possessing or cultivating small amounts of cannabis for personal use or possessing implements for using cannabis.
The cannabis expiation notice, also known as CEN, came into effect in South Australia in 1987. Under this scheme, adults committing “simple cannabis offences” could be issued an expiation notice. Offenders were able to avoid prosecution by paying specified fees. The fees ranged in Australian dollars between $50 and $150, and Australian dollars are fairly comparable with Canadian dollars, as I am sure everyone is well aware. This fine had to be paid within 60 days of the issue of the notice. Failure to pay the specified fee within the 60 day period could lead to prosecution in court and the possibility of a conviction that would then be on a person's record.
Underlying this change was the rationale of a clear distinction that needed to be made between private users of cannabis and those that were involved in dealing, producing or trafficking in cannabis. This distinction was emphasized at the introduction of the cannabis expiation notice scheme by the simultaneous introduction of a more severe penalty for offences relating to manufacturing, production, the sale or supplying of all drugs of dependence in prohibitive substances. This included offences relating to large quantities of cannabis.
The CEN scheme was modified by the introduction of the expiation of offences act of 1996. It now provides those served with expiation notices the option of choosing between being prosecuted in order to actually contest the original notice. Previously if one did receive a notice, that person had to let the payment period expire before he or she could actually have a court appearance and then the notice could be contested. In choosing to be prosecuted, however, people who were issued a notice had their alleged offence converted from one which could be expiated to one which still carried the possibility of a criminal conviction.
The expiation system for minor cannabis offences in South Australia has been the subject of a number of evaluation studies. The impact of the implementation of such a system can best be seen in that review.
As I mentioned, the South Australian cannabis expiation notice system began in 1987. The main arguments for the system were the reduction of the negative social impacts upon the convicted minor cannabis offender as well as a potential cost saving to the state. Implicit in the former view was the belief that potential harms of using cannabis were outweighed by the harms arising from a criminal conviction.
None of the studies upon the levels or patterns of cannabis use in South Australia found that an increase in cannabis use was attributable to the introduction of the CEN scheme. Cannabis use did increase in South Australia over the 10 year period between 1985 and 1995, but increases in cannabis use were detected throughout Australia, including in jurisdictions that possessed a total prohibition approach to cannabis use. In fact the largest increase in the rate of weekly cannabis use across all Australian jurisdictions occurred in Tasmania, which was a strictly prohibitionist state between 1991 and 1995.
A comparative study of minor cannabis offenders in South Australia and in Western Australia concluded that both the CEN scheme, as well as the more punitive prohibition approach, actually had very little deterrent effect on cannabis users. Offenders from both jurisdictions reported that the expiation notice, or the conviction, had really little or no impact upon their subsequent cannabis and other drug related use. However, the adverse social consequences of having a conviction for using cannabis far outweighed those of receiving an expiation notice. A significantly higher proportion of those apprehended for cannabis use in Western Australia reported problems with employment, further involvement with the criminal justice system, as well as having trouble finding accommodation and having interpersonal relationship problems.
In the law enforcement and criminal justice areas, the number of offences for which cannabis expiation notices were issued in South Australia increased in the year 1987-88, from about 6,000 to approximately 17,000 in the year 1993-94, as well as in subsequent years. This appears to reflect a greater use with which the police can process minor cannabis offences and a shift away from the use of police discretion giving offenders informal cautions to a process where it is formally recorded and all minor offences are noted.
Substantial numbers of offenders still received convictions due to their failure to pay their expiation fees on time. This was due in large part to a poor understanding by the cannabis users of the legal implication of not paying their fee to avoid a court appearance and due to financial difficulties. Most CENs are issued for less than 25 grams of cannabis and half of all CENs issued were received by people between the ages of 18 and 24. This can have a huge impact on somebody's future if they are looking at a criminal conviction.
There has been strong support by law enforcement, as well as criminal justice personnel for this CEN scheme. It has proven to be relatively cost effective. They estimate that the costs for the scheme were about $1.24 million from 1995 to 1996 while total revenue from the fees and fines were around $1.68 million. Therefore, it is a difference between costing that for policing and getting that in revenue. Had a prohibition approach been in place, it is estimated that the total cost would have been around $2.01 million with revenue from fines around $1 million.
There is much to be learned by the international examples. The South Australian example is very instructional and it is one of which I think our government has made good use.
I would underscore that this is not technically decriminalizing measures, but simply bringing in a different regime on how we deal with people who do use small amounts of cannabis. I am very pleased to be here to speak in favour of the proposed legislation.